06/25/2012 04:04 pm ET Updated Aug 25, 2012

'New York Times' Magazine on Mental Illness Gets It

Try this test. Google "mental health" and Google "mental illness" and see how many articles you turn up.

The media almost always focuses on mental health and rarely on mental illness. That is why Jeneen Interlandi's "When My Crazy Father Actually Lost His Mind" in the New York Times Magazine is getting such widespread attention. It details the series of crisis her family endured as the result of the mental health system's refusal to treat her father's mental illness. Officials at hospitals and community programs did a brilliant job of making sure her father never became their responsibility. As she writes, in order to be involuntarily committed, her dad:

had to be an imminent danger to himself or others. Domestic violence and verbal threats met that standard, in theory. But in practice, it seemed to mean that he had to be standing on the ledge of a building, or holding a knife to someone's throat at the very moment the police arrived.

And so for weeks, we had been locked in a game of chicken: waiting for my father to do something clearly dangerous; praying like hell that it would not be his suicide or accidental death or the death of someone else.

It's a Catch-22 many families of people with mental illness face: rather than prevent violence, involuntary treatment laws require it.

At the New York Times website, family after family is commenting on the article, pouring out their personal stories about the inability to get the mental health system to provide treatment for a seriously mentally ill relative. Interspersed with those are the predictable explanations by the mental health "experts" claiming they need more money. But that is not true. We spend $135 billion on mental health, but the experts inversely prioritize who gets access to it: the least ill go to the head of the line for services while the most seriously ill go to the jails, prisons, shelters and morgues. Hospitals close and promises are made to reinvest the money in the community, but the money is never invested in services to help those who were previously hospitalized.

Ms. Interlandi's article should drive the public debate. To paraphrase James Carville, "It's mental illness, stupid."